Enchanted childhood

NONE of the children in my neighborhood had a bedroom window seat - the kind with double windows that swing open to the world on balmy spring mornings. Yet the books passed along to me by my parents were filled with idyllic engravings of the domestic scenes in a child's life, and it seemed that every child in them had one of these places from which to launch his reveries: The robin sat on the wide sill and sang you awake from your dreams. You had, after all, a morning of play ahead by the tree-lined river; an afternoon indoors painting or poring over picture books in the library; perhaps a birthday party in the arbor late in the day, followed by a soothing bath; and, finally, as many chapters as you'd like of ``The Water Babies'' or ``Treasure Island,'' or ``At the Back of the North Wind'' - until you slipped gently off to sleep, awakening the next day, and the next, to that same perfect routine.

Such a vision of childhood reached its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time that is sometimes called ``the golden age of childhood.'' The child was no longer regarded as the youngest fallen creature in an imperfect and imperfectible world, but as the symbol of humanity's hopes for a bright future that might be as unclouded, as cultivated, and as uncorrupted as the pastoral paradise in those engravings.

A turn-of-the-century painting by Thomas Cooper Gotch entitled ``The Child Enthroned'' epitomized this vision of childhood, one of many preserved in Children of the Golden Age (Green Tiger Press, San Diego, $15.95, 128 pp., all ages). Gotch depicts a young girl with long silken hair, dressed in richly brocaded robes, seated on a throne, and crowned with a shimmering halo.

The enchanted child took many other forms in this golden age - the ruddy-cheeked puddle-jumper in a Margaret Tarrant illustration and the joyfully tousled prankster in a drawing by Boutet de Monvel - but always she had an aura of serene innocence and a radiant energy.

The literature of the time reflected a similarly liberated view of childhood. The gloomy didacticism prevalent in children's books before the 19th century was gradually replaced by an outpouring of remarkable creative vitality, free of pedagogical strictures.

The result was an astonishing array of classics by such writers as Edward Lear, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Howard Pyle, Rudyard Kipling, L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie, and A.A. Milne.

The nimble drawings of Randolph Caldecott's picture books, N.C. Wyeth's monumental paintings for ``Treasure Island,'' E.H. Shepard's understated pen-and-ink illustrations for the Pooh books and ``Wind in the Willows'' - these and many others gave the stories a vibrant visual life.

Truly this flowering of genius was, as the New York Public Library has named its new collection of works from this period, A Child's Garden of Delights (Abrams, New York, $35, 271 pp., all ages).

There were, however, other children's faces in this period that were equally haunting and compelling: those immigrant children, with their smudged foreheads, that Jacob Riis photographed in the tenement attics of Hell's Kitchen; those faces that Lewis Hine caught in his unforgettable pictures of factory children, with exhausted eyes and mutilated hands, posed next to the deadly, whirling machines they served until well into the 20th century.

The struggle between the ideal and the real even reached America's funny papers in 1908, when Winsor McCay, in a series of now-famous episodes from ``Little Nemo in Slumberland,'' showed his boy hero, who usually went on surreal, otherworldly adventures, using magical powers to transform a shantytown into a Utopia.

This redemptive power that the symbolic golden child displayed, perhaps, lay at the heart of the golden age. The oldest man of all in George MacDonald's 19th-century fantasy ``The Golden Key,'' for instance, is a young child: ``I can help everybody,'' he tells the questing heroine, who travels to the center of the earth to find the answers to life's big questions.

In many ways, that child is our spiritual ancestor. We have internalized the golden child's qualities so completely that we accept many of them as the natural condition of childhood: A child sees through the world's pomposity to the pure truth. He may appear to be ``bad'' by conventional standards, as we meet him in Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but he is profoundly good at heart and thus holds the key for rejuvenating society.

It is Mary, after all, the unruly orphan child in ``The Secret Garden,'' who discovers the magical source of healing that cures, not only the dis-ease within herself, but also the malaise that plagues those other troubled souls at Misselthwaite Manor.

But these children are also fragile, vulnerable, and often powerless to escape victimization. And we are ambivalent about them. Metaphorically, we reject the emotional spontaneity we admire in children as ``childish'' in our adult selves.

Carl Jung was keenly aware of the paradoxes when he wrote: ``The `eternal child' in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, a divine prerogative.''

The paradox is still with us. The news media flood us with depictions of healthy, gifted children who are as well cared for as their 19th-century counterparts and are having a wonderful, if somewhat hurried, childhood. Yet the faces of abducted, abused, and starving children haunt us every time we pick up a quart of milk, open a newspaper, or turn on the evening news.

We are left with questions: How can we hold on to that feeling of empowered potential, that innocent faith that we can change the world in the face of the limitations discovered through adult experience? How do we retain our hard-won wisdom without sacrificing our spontaneous sense of wonder and delight?

What kind of world must we create in order to nurture that golden child who still waits to be discovered anew by each generation?

A clue may be found in that song that robin was singing a century ago, a melody of awakening - one that we must take to heart, if we are not to lose the bright spring morning that comes with it.

John Cech teaches children's literature in the English department of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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